Friday, February 27, 2009

Highway 301 (1950)

Warner Bros. was considered the gangster studio par excellence. By the 1940s a new type of crime film evolved thanks in great part to The Maltese Falcon. Film noir - the darker and cynical son of crime films of the 1930s - replaced the gangster film in popularity. However, noir did take many of the elements of Warner's gangster films when the film style evolved during its peak of popularity.

Warner's incredibly successful 30s gangster films were considered morality tales. Big time gangsters started small but rose fast in the underworld's ranks. In WB thrillers, immoral and streetwise hoods would always succeed in organized crime but in the end they'd usually be shot down - literally - at the height of their mob careers. Although sold to the public as morality tales ("crime does not pay!") the truth was the high-living gangsters lives looked pretty nice. The women, cars, piles of cash and swanky apartments enjoyed by charismatic gangsters played by Cagney or Edward G. Robinson seemed much more desirable than the bland flat-footed cops' hum-drum lives. It was only at the end of the films when Robinson would be gasping his last breath after a hail storm of bullets riddled his chest did it seem like a life of crime would actually be a bad thing. Film noir was different. Regular guys committed crimes out of desperation or lust. Haunted by their decisions - and bad decisions - they would be punished by their own conscience as much as by the police or fate that would eventually catch up with them.

Warner Bros. forgotten 1950 film Highway 301 is a bit of a hybrid of old WB gangster and film noir - which was then at its peak. Star Steve Cochran - who naturally looked like a former thug from the streets - plays George Legenza the leader of a gang of not-too-bright bank robbers blandly dubbed The Tri-State Gang.

Cochran was a talented actor who alternated between playing the lead and supporting roles in dozens of films and TV shows including the unforgettable Twilight Zone episode "What You Need." Highway 301 is just one of Cochran's excellent film noir/gangster films. Check out the outstanding The Chase, White Heat, the Ronald-Reagan-KKK movie Storm Warning, Tomorrow is Another Day, Private Hell 36, and the bizarre beatnik/abortion tale The Beat Generation. The actor was a natural to play a slightly dim but deadly gang leader in Highway 301.

Highway 301's beginning and end features some hack attempts at the "crime does not pay" message Warner Bros. was known for almost 20 years before. The movie begins with not one but three governors introducing the film and touting how their states have crime under control and this story - based on actual events - as told in Highway 301 could actually stop someone from beginning a life of crime. The seemingly endless opening is followed by a semi-documentary-like voice over introducing each member of the Tri-State Gang as they enter a bank they're about to rob. The voiceover, like the introduction by stuffy politicians, is totally unnecessary. Former musical and light comedy director Andrew L. Stone starts his first gritty crime film perfectly - without the need for the obviously studio-imposed tacked-on open. You could turn down the volume and still know that steel-eyed Steve Cochran is the leader and the other men are his followers just by their performances alone. It's obvious and totally unnecessary to announce that these men are career criminals that should probably still be in jail. Instead the unwelcome voiceover (by Edmon Ryan who also plays Detective Sgt. Truscott) barks out what is already obvious on the screen and then is mercifully silent until near the end of the picture.

The film begins with a bank robbery that even in 1950 must have had viewers scratching their heads wondering how they could have gotten away with their crimes. The gang enters a bank, holds it up, and then all of them hop in a black sedan and speed off. Later, after nearly running a local off the road, they ditch the black sedan for a nearly identical dark blue sedan. Again, they speed off past the man they nearly ran down earlier who gets a partial license plate number. Richard Stark's Parker would have never worked with these guys. The cops don't link the crime with a series of other bank robberies at first. This is probably because they have been going over state lines to hold up banks.

After the robbery, the gang members head out to a nightclub with their women. Apparently, the gang has no plan but to keep doing these snatch and run crimes and party on the road until they're finally caught. The girlfriends know about their men's criminal activities and turn a blind eye because of the high life they're leading. All except for the girlfriend of Phillips (Phillips is played by Robert Webber who would later become a familiar face in films playing dozens of gray-haired corrupt politicians and shady business men. To me he'll always be the guy who shockingly elbows a Mexican hooker in the face in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Phillips' new French Canadian girlfriend has know idea that the gang robs banks. When Cochran's squeeze drops hints about their crimes there is hell to pay. The scene featuring Cochran silencing his girlfriend is one of three outstandingly suspenseful scenes that take place in the strangely dark and empty city streets.

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The crime spree continues but now the police are slowly closing in. The next robbery of an armored car is better planned but things turn deadly pretty fast when a man is shot during the holdup. The gang members themselves don't seem to have a problem with the crime and violence that goes along with their careers. It's Phillips' girl Lee (Gaby André) that becomes racked with guilt that she's involved with violent criminals. That element gives Highway 301 a "noirish" feel that would normally be absent from a typical crime-gangster movie.

Around the 3/4 mark the cops are finally shown in a more positive light when the police cleverly monitor and guard a potential witness to the bank robberies at a busy hospital. Stone handles the complicated hospital scenes very well. I can't help but be reminded of The Godfather when the gangsters go to the hospital to kill someone while the cops guard the patient. It's hard to believe Stone never directed a crime film before Highway 301. Clearly, he was very good at it. Later Stone would helm other on-location semi-documentary thrillers including the outstanding Cry Terror! and The Steel Trap.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote that a great film is a film that has three great scenes and no bad ones. If you follow that guideline then Highway 301 isn't a great film. However, a few well-handled suspense scenes and some fine performances by Cochran, Webber, Richard Egan, Wally Cassell, and especially the actresses Virginia Grey and Gaby André make Highway 301 a crime thriller worth seeking out.


Written by Steve-O






3 comments:

  1. Have been trying for years to find a copy of Highway 301 but with no luck. Is it available on VHS or DVD anywhere? Thanks. timeport61@yahoo.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. now on warner archive..........avaible NOW

    ReplyDelete
  3. Actually the definition of a good film comes originally from Howard Hawks and it's "three good scenes" rather than "great scenes."

    ReplyDelete

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